Can Al Gore Resist Cash from Rich Swamp Killers?

Just a few miles west of New York City exists the Meadowlands, an ecological wonder that has withstood the onslaught of suburbanization for decades. That those invaluable wetlands are surviving and even thriving is a great testament to the landmark national environmental legislation passed three decades ago, when irretrievable destruction appeared inevitable.

But the northern Jersey swamps still are endangered, and they also happen to be where Al Gore’s credentials as an environmental leader may soon lie buried beneath yet another hideous shopping mall. The relationship between the Vice President and the Mills Corporation of Arlington, Va.-which plans to build 90 acres of high-priced stores and parking lots on a Meadowlands site-provides what might be called a concrete example of the imperative for radical campaign finance reform.

As recounted in an excellent investigative report by Jefferson Morley in the Feb. 28 edition of The American Prospect magazine, Mills Corporation executives have been struggling with Federal wildlife officials for nearly six years over the company’s proposal for a 2-million-square-foot mega-mall “theme park” north of Giants Stadium.

Like so many projects that threaten wetland areas, Meadowlands Mills is the subject of a Special Area Management Plan, with Federal bureaucrats lining up for or against further development according to the traditional biases of their agencies. The Army Corps of Engineers coddles builders, while the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service defend the striped bass and blue heron. The White House Council on Environmental Quality-where the Vice President wields considerable influence-endeavors to settle such disputes through negotiated compromise.

So last April, the relevant Federal agencies released a draft S.A.M.P. that would reduce the number of acres lost to Meadowlands Mills by more than half, from 206 to 90, while requiring the developers to provide “mitigation” by restoring another 1,000 acres elsewhere in the swamp that would be permanently protected. This deal was, to say the least, highly controversial. Environmentalists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. immediately protested what they regarded as a sellout of the basic principles of the Clean Water Act. “Nobody has the right to liquidate [wetlands] for cash,” said an indignant Mr. Kennedy.

Executives of the Mills Corporation let their checkbooks do their talking. A week after the draft S.A.M.P. appeared, they “bundled” $43,000 in checks made out to Gore 2000 and sent them to the Vice President’s campaign headquarters in Washington. The usual denials of any nexus between policy and political contributions are duly acknowledged by Mr. Morley, who rather mildly describes the sudden infusion of Mills money as “an eyebrow-raising coincidence.” Probably as coincidental as the $125,000 that the Mills interests reportedly have given to various candidates of both parties in New Jersey, or the $8,000 donated by them last spring to Senator Robert Torricelli, a Democrat of New Jersey.

Then there are the Gore-friendly lobbyists hired by Mills Corporation, including former Gov. Ann Richards of Texas. Her role brings to mind another happy coincidence. Back when she ran the Lone Star State, Ms. Richards’ appointees to the University of Texas Board of Regents awarded a very lucrative financial contract to Wertheim Schroder, the Wall Street firm whose emissary to Austin was none other than Tony Coehlo-now the chairman of the Gore campaign.

The Vice President’s office told Mr. Morley that he hasn’t been involved on a daily basis in the Meadowlands dispute, whatever that means. But as Mr. Gore undoubtedly understands, the mega-mall that Mills wants to build there is a perfect example of the suburban sprawl he supposedly hopes to curtail-particularly when there is plenty of fallow land in the nearby city of Newark.

How the Democratic nominee will reconcile his corporate backers with his environmental philosophy remains an open question. Over the years he has done much to earn the strong endorsement of many environmentalists, including Mr. Kennedy. More than once, he has demonstrated independence from the interests whose lobbyists now surround him like a palace guard.

Recently, for example, The New York Times published an article raising questions about the Gore family’s connections with the Occidental Petroleum Corporation and its late, legendary chairman Armand Hammer. What the Times article omitted was Mr. Gore’s tough stance toward the oil firm during the Love Canal episode, when, as a young Congressman, he exposed the negligence of an Occidental subsidiary in that toxic waste scandal. At the time, he was receiving $20,000 a year in mining-lease payments from Oxy, a fact which didn’t deter him from holding the company publicly accountable for its sins.

A few months ago, the Vice President told the Love Canal story to New Hampshire high school students as a narrative of citizen triumph over corporate abuse. What would he tell them about Meadowlands Mills?

Can Al Gore Resist Cash from Rich Swamp Killers?